"You didn't mean to strike me down?" Philip asked as he continued to back away from her.
She was getting weary of chasing after him. "If you'l stand stil long enough, I'l try to explain what happened," she promised.
Philip continued to look suspicious, but he did finally stop his retreat.
"I certainly didn't mean to strike you down," she repeated again. "I don't even know you, sir. Why would I want to harm you?"
Her speech seemed to placate Philip, but he reversed his decision to forgive her when she added in a casual voice, "I meant to fel your brother, of course."
"Of course? You were going to hit Justin?" Philip was back to shouting.
Actually, she'd meant to give Justin several good hits. She decided it wouldn't do her cause a bit of good if she told his brother that, though. Philip looked as if he'd take exception to such honesty. He obviously didn't know what a spoiled boy Justin was. He was protective, too. Jamie couldn't fault that admirable trait, though she believed it was misplaced.
She decided to use diplomacy. "Yes, I was going to hit your brother. Philip, surely you've realized by now that Justin has the manners of a pig."
"Bring Justin to me."
Alec's roar turned her attention back to him. "You told me to take care of this matter, Alec, and I would—"
"I'l take care of it," Alec told her.
"How?" she asked, worried about the look in his eyes now. "You won't truly hurt the boy, will you, husband?"
"Did he touch you, Jamie?"
"Well, yes," Jamie replied before she saw how furious he was. "But just a little touch, Alec. It was only a quick grab and a smal kiss—"
"I'm going to kil the bastard," Alec interrupted. He hadn't shouted, but his cold tone of voice sent shivers down her spine.
Jamie started wringing the rest of the pleats out of her plaid.
A few minutes later, she found herself in the most ludicrous position. She was actually standing in front of Justin, defending his life. "Now, Alec, he's just a boy. The Kincaids don't kil children. Do be quiet, Justin," she ordered when he tried to protest her choice of words. "You are a boy or you would have known better than to chal enge Alec. Please, Alec? Let him live long enough to learn some manners."
She looked as if she was about to burst into tears. That fact swayed Alec's intentions. He finally nodded agreement.
Jamie became weak with relief. That feeling didn't last long, however. The second she moved away from Justin, Alec moved forward. He had the young man off the ground and flying through the air like an arrow before she could stop him. Justin landed on his backside in a cloud of dust.
"Alec, you promised me."
"I won't kil him, love," Alec answered. "I'm just going to beat some manners into him."
There were several grunts of approval over that horrid statement. Colin, Jamie noticed, had also nodded his agreement.
"If you beat him into a bloody pulp, I'l have to spend the rest of the day patching him up, Alec. Would you completely ruin my day by making me stand so close to Justin?"
Alec had Justin by the nape of his neck now. He held him high off the ground but turned his gaze to her and asked, "Did you mean it, Jamie?"
"Mean what?" she replied, wondering why in God's name he could be smiling now.
"That you loved me."
She suddenly realized they'd both been speaking Gaelic.
"You ruined my surprise," she told Justin, ignoring the fact that the boy could barely breathe, let alone give her a proper apology.
"You shouted your love in front of everyone, wife. Don't deny it now," Alec demanded.
"You'l put that boy down first," she countered.
"You'l answer me first."
"Yes, I love you. There, are you happy?"
He tossed Justin to the ground with a quick flick of his wrist. His casual strength didn't upset her, she realized. The opposite was really the truth. She not only liked his strength, she depended upon it. Jamie gave Alec a smile, just because she'd finally sorted it all out in her mind.
"I'm very happy," Alec told her.
"I'm saying Justin didn't touch her," Philip shouted, drawing everyone's attention.
Jamie let out a loud gasp, then reached for the club.
Alec hauled her up against his side. The rest of her pleats gave up the battle. The plaid would have fal en to the ground if she hadn't grabbed hold of it.
"Did anyone else see this attack?" Alec asked the crowd.
The two soldiers who'd been ordered to fol ow Jamie stepped forward.
"We both were witnesses," one of the soldiers stated.
"Yet neither of you interfered?" Alec asked, scowling intently.
"We were about to intervene," the younger soldier stated. "But you told us to stay ten paces away from your wife so she wouldn't know we were fol owing her, and by the time we'd rushed forward, it was too late."
"Alec, why would you have your men fol ow…"
Jamie quit her question when her husband squeezed her shoulders. She guessed he didn't want to go into his reasons now.
"I saw Justin grab her when she came around the corner," the first soldier continued.
Alec's jaw was clenched tight with suppressed fury. "Justin proclaimed his admiration for your wife," the soldier related. "I heard him tel Lady Kincaid that her violet eyes had the power to make his knees weak. Since Harold's our all y, I thought one of us should go get you, but—"
" Was your all y," Philip shouted.
"Philip, you needn't get so upset," Jamie interjected. "I was only going to bring Alec outside to have a firm talk with your brother." She glanced up at her husband and said, "You were too busy."
"And so you used a club."
She thought she detected a spark of amusement in his eyes, but she couldn't be sure. "Alec, the only way I could get Justin to unhand me was to promise to give him something that would really make his knees weak. It was plain trickery. The foolish boy thought I meant to return his advances, but I really meant to have you shout at him. 'Tis the truth your voice can make anyone's knees go weak."
"You've disgraced me and humiliated my brother," Philip stated, once again demanding their attention.
"Nay," Jamie countered. "You've both done that all by yourselves."
If Philip's face turned any darker, his skin would surely ignite. "My father will hear about these insults, Kincaid. I promise you."
The laird's two sons turned and ran toward the stables. The crowd made a wide path for them.
Colin, Harold's trusted soldier, didn't fol ow the young men. He stopped by Alec's side. "Your conditions, Kincaid?"
"He has one week."
Jamie waited until the soldier had left, then asked Alec, "Who has one week?"
"What is he supposed to do during this week?" she asked, trying to understand.
"He'll try to all ay my anger."
"And if he fails?"
She knew he was going to say that God-awful word, but she was stil stunned. This was all somehow, some way, her fault. It had to be. Father Murdock wasn't a lying man, and he'd told her just the day before that he thought the Highlands were a very peaceful place to live. Until I came along, Jamie qualified. Now the Kincaids were fighting with the McPhersons, thanks to her interference with the sick babe, and the Kincaids were only an insult away from taking up arms against the Fergusons because Daniel was being as cold as sleet since she'd given Mary sanctuary.
Added to those worries were Mary Kathleen's relatives. They were probably marching toward Kincaid land now.
And now Justin's father would join the list of enemies. If things continued along this broken path, there wouldn't be a Kincaid warrior left alive in another week's time.
It all suddenly overwhelmed her. For the first time in her life, Jamie needed a good, long, loud cry. "I'm going to find Mary Kathleen," she whispered.
"She's with Elizabeth. She's going to stay with Angus and his wife until tonight, Jamie."
"Don't question me."
"You needn't snap at me, Alec," Jamie whispered. "Why can't I go and get our daughter? I want to hold her."
Alec reacted to the worry in her voice. "You'l ruin my surprise," he told her.
He thought he'd placate her and was therefore unprepared for her reaction. Her eyes fil ed with tears. "I had a wonderful surprise for you," she wailed. "It's ruined now."
Father Murdock rushed forward and awkwardly patted Jamie's shoulder. "Now, now, lass. The day isn't over yet. There's stil the king—"
"He must not be coming after all ," Gavin interjected. He thought that announcement would please his mistress, for he'd witnessed her initial reaction when she'd been told Edgar was going to pay a visit.
"Well, spit," Jamie cried out. "Now it's all ruined."
Alec meant to correct that misassumption when Jamie turned back to him. "Where's Edith? I want to ask her—"
"She and Annie are packing their things. Marcus?" Alec called out. "You'd better go and ready your things as well ."
"Why is everyone packing?" Jamie asked.
"They're leaving," Alec stated.
"Where are they going?"
"Marcus is taking Edith and Annie over to Brack's holding. They are distant cousins," Gavin explained.
"For a nice visit?" Jamie asked, mopping at the corners of her eyes with her plaid.
"No," Alec replied. "They're going to live with Brack's family."
"Why? I don't understand, Alec. Edith and I are sure to become good friends," she said. "And Annie is Helena's sister, Alec. You cannot turn your back on her. will you not reconsider this decision?"
His expression was set in stone. Jamie turned to Marcus. "You'l be coming back, won't you?"
Marcus gave her a quick nod. Jamie turned to Alec again. "I'm going back inside now. If you order anyone to fol ow me, I'l use another club on him. I wish to be alone for a few minutes."
Alec knew it was safe and therefore nodded approval. He needn't have bothered, he realized, as Jamie had already started up the steps to the castle. "There are guests waiting in the hall ," he called out to her.
The door slammed shut on his words. Alec let out a sigh. He turned to his soldiers and gave them new instructions. He wanted to hurry through his orders so that he could go after Jamie. She'd look so dejected. The tears in her eyes had upset him, too. Perhaps if he fixed her pleats, she'd feel better. Then he could goad her into tel ing him she loved him again.
Jamie noticed four big soldiers dawdling in the entrance as soon as she shut the door behind her. The colors in their checkered plaid indicated they were from yet another clan. She noticed a fifth soldier standing near the hearth when he called out to his friends to let her pass. She turned to the man and gave a quick curtsy. The soldier immediately motioned her forward with a rather arrogant wave of his hand.
She didn't want to have to engage in conversation now. Stil , good manners required that she at least introduce herself.
Jamie hurried down the steps, clutching her plaid to her waist. She was determined to get the sorry chore over and done with as soon as possible.
Then she was going to go up to her bedroom and have her cry.
The elderly gray-haired soldier had already made himself at home. He held a goblet of wine in one hand and a fat wedge of cheese in the other.
When she stood a foot or two away from him, the soldier straightened away from the mantel. Jamie managed a smile. Her plaid fel to the floor when she affected a second proper curtsy. And that was simply the last upset she could take. Tears started streaming down her cheeks; she picked up the cloth.
She might have been able to regain control of herself, though, if the soldier hadn't had such a kind, sympathetic expression.
"Dear lady, what has caused you this distress?"
Well, spit, the man had a kind voice, too. His eyes seemed to radiate compassion. His age reminded her a little of her papa too, which only made matters worse, of course. Now she wasn't just miserable; she was homesick, too.
"Surely it can't be as terrible as all that," the soldier added.
"If you knew what shame I've caused the Kincaids, why, you'd probably be weeping, too," Jamie blurted out. "I've started so many wars I can barely keep count."
The soldier's eyes widened over that pronouncement. Jamie nodded. "It's the truth I'm tel ing you. I might as well admit it all , for you're sure to hear of this mess by the end of your visit. If I were a coward, I'd take to my bed for the rest of my days."
"Perhaps I can help."
"No one can help, save the king, of course, and when he gets wind of this trouble, he'l probably have me flogged."
Her words were fairly tripping over themselves in her hurry to explain. "I was trying to do the right thing, you see, only everything that's right in England is wrong up here. You can't say thank you because they take it as an insult. You can't save a baby's life because they think you've kidnapped him. You can't—"
"Slowly, dear lady," the soldier advised. "Start at the beginning. You'l feel all the better after sharing your worries, and I really would like to help. I have considerable influence here."
The man sounded sincere. "I don't know where to start this pitiful confession," Jamie admitted.
"Start with the first war," he suggested.
She nodded. "I started a war with the McPhersons because I tended the laird's dying son. When the babe was better, the laird came to fetch him and accused me of kidnapping the child."
The soldier gave her a sympathetic expression. "I didn't kidnap the baby, of course, but I did save him from sure death. You would think his papa would be appreciative."
"I would think so," he replied.
"He wasn't. I called him a pig."
"No, I do believe I called him a goat." Jamie shrugged. "It doesn't matter now. He went home in a pout and now the Kincaids can't go near his land.